Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Eikon.
I come from a cavalry family — as in horse soldiers. My grandfather commanded the US Army’s last cavalry regiment, until we shifted to tanks together with the rest of the twentieth century. Given this background, I am steeped in the old cavalry movies, the greatest of which is John Wayne’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Portraying Captain Nathan Briddles, a grizzled Civil War veteran facing the end of his career, this cavalry classic unleashes a torrent of manly quips. According to Captain Briddles, true manliness can be summed up in two words: Never apologize.
When I became a Christian, I learned that not every manly saying in John Wayne movies should be adopted. “Never apologize” sounds great in theory, but in practice it may combine with a man’s sin nature to make him overbearing and arrogant. Yet it turns out that the biblical ideal of manhood may also be summed up in two words. They are found in Genesis 2:15, which contain the Lord’s calling to the first man, Adam, for his life in the Garden of Eden.
The creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 supplies a wealth of information regarding God’s design for human society, including men. Genesis 1:27 states that “God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them,” stating that God created two sexes of equal value and dignity. Genesis 2:7 says that “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground,” showing that mankind is specially created by God and not the product of evolution. Moreover, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” so that man is a spiritual being designed for covenant union with God through faith and obedience.
Armed with all this useful information, Genesis 2:15 goes on to provide the how of biblical manhood: how is the distinctive male calling lived out? I have called this verse the “Masculine Mandate,” because it establishes the architecture of biblical manhood in a way that is confirmed throughout Scripture. It is blessedly direct and to the point: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). At the heart of this calling are two words that shape the biblical view of manhood: work and keep.
A Man’s Work
God’s first calling to men directs us to work. It is commonly realized that men were made to be productive. Yet the idea here is not simply labor, but specifically the work of cultivating. We gain this insight from the context in which Adam was to work: as the cultivator of God’s garden. The man was called by God to till the soil and cultivate living things so that they would grow and bear beautiful fruit.
What does a gardener do to make his garden grow? The answer is that he tends the garden. He plants seeds and prunes branches. The gardener digs and fertilizes. His labor makes living things strong, beautiful, and lush. This idea should be extended beyond Adam’s local context to the relationships men are called to serve today. We are intended to “work” whatever field the Lord places us in, investing our energies, ideas, and passions to make good things grow. A biblical man, then, is one who has devoted himself to cultivating, building, and growing.
The most significant application of this first item in God’s masculine mandate occurs in a man’s closest relationships: as a husband and a father. Genesis 2:15 urges godly men to think of these and other relationships in terms of Adam’s garden. We are to invest our labors in the hearts of our wives and children so that our hands are green with the soil of their hearts. Christian men are to take a hands-on approach to growing their faith in Christ and to provide healthy encouragement and inspiration. God calls Christian men to “work” these gardens, sacrificially serving so that there is an abundance of life and blessing in the hearts of those we love.
This biblical mandate to tend our gardens explodes the idea that a true man is the strong, silent type. To the contrary, a godly man is a cultivator and nurturer: he devotes himself to building up the hearts of his wife and children (not to mention employees and other significant people). Most of us have been blessed by a man’s arm on our shoulder or a manly pat on the back, and we know how masculine encouragement is designed by God to go straight to the heart. Realizing this truth will prompt Christian men to redirect their attention to the minds and hearts of the people in our lives and also to shape prayerfully the words that we speak.
A Man’s Keep
The second half of God’s masculine mandate charges men to “keep.” Here, the meaning is to guard or protect. This word is used of soldiers, shepherds, priests, custodians, and government officials. The Lord ascribes “keeping” to himself, saying in Psalm 121:7–8: “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
This calling to keep rounds out the masculine mandate of the Bible. A man is not only to wield the plow, but also to bear the sword. Being God’s deputy in the garden, Adam not only was to make it fruitful but also to keep it safe. Likewise, our basic mandate as Christian men is to cultivate, build and grow (both things and people) and also to stand guard so that those under our care are kept safe.
Just two words. The Masculine Mandate is simple but not, therefore, easy. What a difference it will make if Christian men will check out of the self-centered grid paraded around us in secular society and instead embrace God’s calling to work and keep — to till the soil of hearts and stand guard over God’s treasured ones. Christian men will spend our lifetimes learning what it means to serve sacrificially so that others may abound in life and to guard vigilantly so that our wives, children, communities, and church are kept safe. But what a difference such biblical manhood makes.
The Sword and the Shovel
Nehemiah 4 provides a vivid picture of the kind of men that God wants us to be. Nehemiah is famous for rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall, and it was no easy task. Not only was the work difficult, but there were enemies nearby who sought to frustrate the project. To answer this challenge, Nehemiah placed the men of Jerusalem at the worksite armed both to work and keep. To this end, he armed the city’s men with a shovel in one hand and a spear or sword in the other: “each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other” (Neh. 4:17). Here is the Bible’s vision of Christian manhood that will meet the trials of our times as well: men who work to cultivate in their families, communities, and churches, and who are armed with God’s strength to defend. God’s calling to “work” and “keep” will enable Christian men today to raise up a generation after us to serve the Lord and will keep our loved ones safe as we prayerfully stand between our families and the evil raging on every side.
Richard D. Phillips is author of The Masculine Mandate: God’s Calling to Men (Ligonier Ministries, 2016) and minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC. He serves also as adjunct professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he is a member of the Board of Trustees. He is co-editor of the Reformed Expository Commentary series and has authored over forty books on the Bible and Reformed theology. Rick is married to Sharon, with five grown children. He enjoys reading historical fiction and passionately following University of Michigan sports.
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